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After falling out of favor, residential schools gaining interest

October 12, 1997

BOSTON (AP) _ In the 1800s, poor American children and kids without parents were often sent to live-in quarters that were part orphanage, part boarding school.

Often funded by private donors _ philanthropists who wanted to rescue children from delinquency or academic failure _ the residential schools fell out of favor by the 1940s.

But they’re coming back. This time, it is taxpayers, not just generous millionaires, who are paying to send at-risk students to boarding schools.

Last month, the nation’s first public boarding school opened in Trenton, N.J., for predominantly inner-city children. Within the next few weeks, Boston University plans to open a year-round publicly-funded boarding school.

Boston University’s Residential Charter School in the rural western Massachusetts town of Granby will eventually be home to 180 students who are wards of the state Department of Social Services.

The students will leave behind foster families and group homes. For many of them, the boarding school will be a far cry from their unstable families and the streets of Boston, Springfield or Lynn. Many of them have parents who are in jail or on drugs. Others have no homes.

The students, who will range from seventh to 12th grade, are not juvenile delinquents, school officials say.

``They’re not kids in trouble, they’re more troubled kids,″ said Ed Gotgart, the school’s headmaster. ``The kids bounce from school system to school system and try as they may, the public system just can’t keep up quickly enough.″

The students will study traditional subjects at their own pace. Modeled after an English boarding school, the renovated facility includes science labs, a darkroom, dining hall and gymnasium.

The program was launched by W. Norman Johnson, a BU dean and retired Navy admiral who decided several years ago that boarding schools should be more than just the preserve of wealthy, privileged kids.

The annual $6,000 educational costs for each student will be funded by the state. The money for room and board _ about $29,000 per child each year _ will likely come from the Department of Social Services, although the program still needs final state approval and licensing.

The boarding rate is about the same as the cost of a year in a group home or other program, agency officials said.

Advocates of residential schools say the costs are far lower than the long-term alternative: juvenile delinquents and school dropouts.

``It holds a lot of promise for a population that’s very difficult to deal with sometimes in regular schools,″ DSS spokeswoman Lorraine Carli said.

The public boarding school idea has been criticized by some who say children belong at home _ not in residential schools paid for by taxpayers.

``There’s a legitimate concern that government sometimes oversteps or could overstep by removing kids from their families in cases where it’s not justified,″ said Scott Hamilton, the associate commissioner for charter schools in the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Yet the idea may be catching on.

Pennsylvania is considering a law to start three public residential schools. Communities in Maryland, California, Texas, Illinois and Florida also have expressed interest in starting similar schools, said Heidi Goldsmith, executive director of the International Center for Residential Education in Washington, D.C.

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